In a new interview with Grammy.com, legendary guitarist and composer Jason Becker, who has been living with ALS for over 30 years spoke about the eye movement system he developed with his father and how that allows him to communicate both conversationally and musically.
“When I was in the hospital, getting my trach and stomach tube operation 24 years ago, my dad knew I was not going to be able to talk,” Jason said. “It was already hard to understand what I was trying to say because my voice was so weak. A speech therapist brought in what they had in the way of communication, which was very complicated and impersonal. For instance, there were sentences like, ‘I am cold, I am angry, bring me some water,’ etc. It was based on shortcuts for standard needs and issues.
“My dad didn’t think that would work and was a bit terrified about thinking I wouldn’t be able to quickly communicate what it was I wanted to say — even if it was just to make a joke or be part of a conversation. He went to his studio and devised a grid with the letters of the alphabet, divided into six squares. Each letter requires two eye movements. As we all got used to it, we could see that we could make our own shortcuts, like raised eyebrows for yes and lip up for no, and things like that. And, we all have memorized it now and we can all carry on conversations at a pretty fast speed. I can tell long stories, make jokes and be a part of the conversation. I have heard from others that they have tried the system and like it. At one of my movie screenings, I met a woman from Texas who said she was able to speak to her father for the last time, and she was very grateful. I still haven’t found anything better for me, including computer systems; they just aren’t personal or fast enough for me.
“With music, it is fairly simple. I don’t even need a musician when I am composing,” he continued. “I use LogicPro and I have a lot of great instrument samples. I direct my caregiver where to put notes. I rearrange the notes, instrument by instrument, and track by track. I usually know what I am going for and what harmonies and counterpoints will sound cool. I can adjust the velocity and volume of each note. I spell to my caregivers, for example: ‘Make the third note longer,’ or ‘Turn down the velocity.’ When recording musicians, it is easy to explain what I want. I also had a great co-producer, Dan Alvarez, who gets what I say and can explain things with his voice and hum if necessary.”
Becker‘s story is one of brilliance, talent, determination, adversity, and, ultimately, triumph. A child prodigy on guitar, Jason rose to prominence as a teenager when he was one half of the technical guitar duo CACOPHONY, with his great friend Marty Friedman. In 1989, at only 19 years old and after wowing audiences all over the world, the young virtuoso became the guitarist for David Lee Roth, following in the huge footsteps of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. He wrote and recorded on Roth‘s third solo album, “A Little Ain’t Enough”, and was poised for superstardom when a nagging pain in his leg was diagnosed as Motor Neurone Disease (MND), also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the same condition Stephen Hawking lived with for over five decades. It is a fatal condition with a life expectancy of maybe five years. Maybe.
That was more than 30 years ago. He lost the ability to play guitar, walk, talk, and breathe on his own. But never lost his will to live or his desire to create music. Communicating through a series of eye movements with a system developed by his father, Jason spells out words as well as musical notes and chords. He imparts his musical vision to his team who then can input the notes into a computer, edit the parts to his exacting standards, and then generate charts for session musicians. His inspiring music and life story have been the subject of countless news articles and magazine cover stories.